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Officer Caesar R. Goodson, 46, is expected to elect a jury trial this week on charges that include what's known as depraved heart murder, a second-degree charge that carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.
Officer Caesar R. Goodson, 46, is expected to elect a jury trial this week on charges that include what's known as depraved heart murder, a second-degree charge that carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

The Baltimore police officer who faces the most serious charges in the death of Freddie Gray is headed to trial this week.

Officer Caesar R. Goodson Jr. drove the van in which the medical examiner ruled that the 25-year-old West Baltimore man suffered a fatal spinal injury in April 2015. Alone among the six Baltimore officers accused in Gray's arrest and death, he has been charged with murder.

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Goodson, 46, is expected to elect a jury trial this week on charges that include what's known as depraved-heart murder, a second-degree charge that carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.

He also faces three counts of manslaughter and charges of second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment. The trial comes two weeks after Officer Edward M. Nero was acquitted in a bench trial of four misdemeanor counts related to Gray's arrest.

Motions in the case will be heard Monday, and jury selection could begin thereafter.

Goodson's case presents a unique challenge for prosecutors in that he was the only one of the six officers who did not give a statement to investigators. The trial is expected to feature medical experts giving contrasting opinions over exactly how and when Gray was injured.

Defense attorneys, meanwhile, will have to defend Goodson after the trials of two fellow officers in which a parade of officers and law enforcement experts said it was his responsibility to secure Gray with a seat belt.

While experts in the trial of Officer William G. Porter last year debated when, exactly, Gray was hurt, they agreed that the injury occurred while he was in Goodson's custody.

Prosecutors have hinted that they will present a "rough ride" theory, which would involve allegations that Goodson intentionally drove erratically to cause Gray harm. They have released few details in pretrial pleadings.

"This case ... does not involve the simple misuse of a vehicle's seatbelt resulting in the vehicle making harmful contact with a prisoner," they wrote in a recent filing. "It involves a multi-faceted act of recklessness that resulted in fatal injuries to Mr. Gray."

In recent weeks, attorneys for Goodson have challenged the admissibility of key evidence, including portions of Gray's autopsy findings.

Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams has prohibited attorneys on either side from discussing the case outside of court filings or hearings.

Goodson, who is free on $350,000 bail, drove the van on April 12 because he volunteered to work an overtime shift on an off day.

David Jaros, a University of Baltimore law professor who has been following the cases against the officers, said the Porter mistrial in December and the acquittal of Nero last month should not be considered indicative of any particular outcome in the Goodson case.

"The case against Officer Nero was one that involved some very close legal questions that, I think, the defense felt favored them and so wanted a judge who appreciated the legal standards that were in question," Jaros said. "Goodson's case will rest less on the complexity of the legal theory and more on questions of fact and responsibility, which we consider more in the jury's bailiwick — the questions of what happened."

Among the focal points in Goodson's case is likely to be the van's unexplained stop at Mosher Street and Fremont Avenue.

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Surveillance camera footage shows Goodson, alone, checking on Gray. Goodson can be seen walking to the back of the van, looking in, then returning to the front and getting back behind the wheel.

Goodson, the only person who can account for what happened during that stop, invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. He has never discussed what occurred publicly.

Prosecutors contend that Gray was hurt and in need of assistance and Goodson knew it.

"Despite stopping for the purpose of checking on Mr. Gray's condition, at no point did he seek nor did he render any medical assistance for Mr. Gray," Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby said in May 2015.

Goodson got on the police radio after that stop and said he needed the assistance of other officers to "check this prisoner out," and Porter responded.

The prosecution contends that Gray told Porter he could not breathe and that the officers did not get him medical attention.

During his trial, Porter denied that Gray had said he was unable to breathe but testified that he told Goodson that Gray needed medical attention.

Porter testified that Goodson did not say why he thought Gray needed to be checked, which prosecutors said strained credulity. In closing arguments, they accused Porter of lying.

Goodson's trial was scheduled to begin in January, but was postponed as the state's highest court considered whether Porter could be compelled to testify against fellow officers with charges pending against him in a retrial.

The Court of Appeals eventually ruled in the state's favor, and Porter is expected to be called as a witness.

The evidence in Goodson's case could mirror that presented at Porter's trial, in which prosecutors Michael Schatzow and Janice Bledsoe used citizen video, footage from the city's closed-circuit television network and police radio transmissions to support their case.

In Goodson's case, the defense is expected to attack the autopsy findings. Last year, attorneys Andrew Graham and Matthew Fraling enlisted Amy Askew, an attorney with medical malpractice experience, to work on the case. In pretrial motions, they have asked to block portions of the autopsy and a statement allegedly made by Porter that was considered in the final ruling on the cause of death.

Medical experts called by the defense at Porter's trial placed Gray's injury later in the sequence of events than the medical examiner, thus minimizing the amount of time that prosecutors could allege that Porter failed to help. One expert said Gray's injury was so severe that he could not have spoken to ask for help.

Assistant medical examiner Carol Allan testified that she would not have concluded that Gray's death was a homicide if Goodson had taken Gray directly to the hospital after the fourth stop of the van.

Jurors could hear from Donta Allen, who was arrested after Gray and placed in a separate part of the van. Prosecutors had planned to call Allen as a witness at Goodson's scheduled trial in January, but it is unclear whether they still plan to do so.

Another possible witness is Nero. Now that he has been acquitted, prosecutors no longer need a court order to call him as a witness.

In the past decade, at least three people have sued the city, alleging that they suffered injuries as a result of rough rides in police vans. Two won multimillion-dollar jury verdicts in civil suits; a third received a $95,000 settlement last fall. No officer was charged criminally in those cases.

State courts have defined depraved-heart murder as "a dangerous and reckless act with wanton indifference to the consequences and perils involved." It is an offense more serious than a homicide that results from negligence.

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Jaros, the University of Baltimore professor, said prosecutors took an "aggressive strategy" in determining the charges against Goodson, and will face an uphill battle to prove depraved-heart murder.

Prosecutors might have charged aggressively in an effort to secure a conviction on a lesser charge, he said.

Former city police Officer Charles J. Key, now a consultant who has testified in two civil suits alleging rough rides in Baltimore, said prosecutors could try to introduce the concept of rough rides simply to show that Goodson would have been aware of the risks to an unbelted detainee in the back of a van, even if they have no evidence to suggest that Gray was subjected to a rough ride.

But the defense could counter with witnesses to point to the large numbers of detainees who Key said have been placed unbelted in police wagons over the years and were not injured.

Key said it would be "ludicrous" if the depraved-heart charge is based only on the failure to secure a seat belt.

The Freddie Gray case

What you need to know about the trial of Baltimore Officer Caesar Goodson, which starts this week:

The defendant

Officer Caesar Goodson, 46, was the driver of the van used to transport Freddie Gray to the Western District headquarters last year. Goodson, who is free on $350,000 bail, drove the van on April 12 because he volunteered to work an overtime shift on an off day.

The charges

Goodson is charged with second-degree depraved-heart murder, second-degree assault, misconduct in office, involuntary manslaughter, manslaughter by vehicles (gross negligence), manslaughter by vehicles (criminal negligence) and reckless endangerment. Of those officers charged, he's the only one facing charges of murder and manslaughter by vehicles. The second-degree charge of depraved-heart murder carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison. Second-degree assault carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. Reckless endangerment carries a penalty of up to five years in prison. Misconduct in office does not carry a set term limit.

What's happened so far?

Two of the six officers charged in Gray's arrest and death have already been on trial. A trial for Officer William Porter ended in a hung jury in December. He'll be retried later this year. Officer Edward Nero elected for a bench trial and was cleared of all charges last month.

What's next?

Following the Goodson trial, four more Baltimore police officers charged in Gray's arrest and death are set to go on trial by October. Goodson's trial is to be followed by those of Lt. Brian Rice (July 5), Officer Garrett Miller (July 27), Porter (Sept. 6) and Sgt. Alicia White (Oct. 13). All the officers have pleaded not guilty.

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